Top 10 Film Industry Stories of 2004: #1: The Passion's Box Office Matches Pre-Opening Hype
By Dan Krovich
December 31, 2004
Its position as the #1 film industry story of the year may not be a complete surprise, seeing as The Passion of the Christ made our top stories of the year for 2003 as well. Even then, there was plenty of coverage, focusing on charges of anti-Semitism in the at-that-point unseen film. There was no doubt that there would be interest in Mel Gibson’s Biblical epic. But still, this was a film in a dead language being released by independent distributor Newmarket – not exactly elements of a blockbuster hit.
Then, as the Ash Wednesday release date approached with aggressive grassroots marketing, the strength and breadth of the appeal of the film became evident. Individuals who hadn’t gone to the movies in years (or even ever) were lining up and church groups were buying blocks of tickets (sometimes buying out an entire showing at a theater.) The result was an opening weekend of $83.8 million ($125.1 million for the five-day period.) It wasn’t just a one-weekend phenomenon, either, spending three consecutive weeks at number one and remaining strong through Easter when it jumped back to number one. The final tally was $370 million, making it the third-highest grosser of the year. With another $234 million in overseas box office and massive DVD sales on top of that, it was not a bad showing for an independent foreign language film with a $25 million budget.
Beyond the purely financial windfall, The Passion of the Christ also exposed a cultural environment that was widely ignored and perhaps presaged other events throughout the year. It wasn’t a surprise to find out that the religious market was severely underserved in movies and television, but the sheer size of that market was an eye-opener to some. Of course, the normal Hollywood protocol of mimicking that which is successful is probably not applicable here, as it would easily be seen as a cynical transparent effort. The real strength of The Passion came from the fact that it came from the independent vision and faith of a man who shared the beliefs of his audience. They trusted Mel Gibson, a Traditionalist Catholic, with this story in a way that they would never trust a project from a movie studio.
What ultimately makes The Passion of the Christ the film industry story of the year, however, is that it was able to transcend the film industry. Though the feared re-emergence of blatant anti-Semitism ultimately proved to be much ado about nothing, it did reinforce the fact that even though there is no government-established religion, there’s little doubt that the United States is a Christian country. It resurfaced during post-election red state versus blue state discussion, and it’s probably not irrelevant to note that it made more than triple the box office of that other box office phenomenon (and our #2 story of the year), Fahrenheit 9/11.